Interest in bath salts for use in health, beauty, and sports medicine has been exploding in recent years, and if you’ve been following the chatter, it’s likely that you’ve heard two main topics of conversation: magnesium sulfate and Epsom salt. But what you may not realise is that you are actually reading and hearing about the same thing.
Why the confusion? Well, first of all, Epsom salt isn’t salt as you know it (that's sodium chloride), but rather a naturally occurring mineral compound of magnesium and sulfate. Secondly, there has been increasing interest in the powers of magnesium for overall wellbeing and recovery after sports and exercise. However, in some cases here, you may having been reading about magnesium chloride, otherwise known as magnesium flakes. It can all be a little baffling. But what’s important to remember is that magnesium sulfate and Epsom salts are the exact same thing.
Like many common names for chemical compounds, there’s an interesting story behind why we call magnesium sulfate Epsom salt. As you might have guessed, Epsom salt is named after the place where it was discovered - a rural community in Surrey, near a town called Epsom.
It was first discovered in the 17th century by a farmer who noticed his cattle wouldn’t drink the water from a particular spring. Intrigued, he tried the water for himself, noting that it was very bitter, and that when it evaporated it left behind a white, flaky, salty-looking substance. He also soon found that the water had a purging effect and that his animals that bathed in the water seemed to have wounds heal faster than others.
Soon after, people began to flock to Epsom to benefit from the purgative effects of this bitter water. Some were looking to relieve the painful symptoms of gout (the swelling of joints mainly), while others benefitted from its other purging effects (that being, as a laxative). It was said to have been drunk from stoneware mugs - sometimes as many as 15 pints at a time.
The incredible substance wasn’t officially named until the 1690s when a British anatomist and physiologist named Dr. Nehemiah Grew documented these "bitter purging salts" that he found near Epsom in a book , Nature and Use of the Salt contained in Epsom and such other Waters (1697).
Grew acquired the patent for exclusive manufacturing of Epsom salt, and as more springs were discovered across England, it was soon readily available over the counter. As more and more people began to use it, more of its uses and health benefits were discovered. Later studies found that Epsom salt was in fact a compound of magnesium and sulfate, both of which are readily absorbed through the skin, thus being perfect for use in the bath. From there, its popularity and abundance grew exponentially.
So what exactly is magnesium sulfate, and what are its uses and benefits for your body? Magnesium sulfate is an inorganic salt with the formula MgSO4. Being an inorganic salt simply means it does not contain carbon. It is most commonly found as ‘epsomite’, which is a heptahydrate sulfate mineral, but most people just call it Epsom salt.
Now, with all that technical stuff out of the way. Let’s take a look at why it’s such an incredible substance. Both magnesium and sulfate are important minerals that play a number of roles in our body. Magnesium is an essential mineral that is key to over 300 biochemical functions in the body.
When ingested (via food), or absorbed through the skin, it helps reduce inflammation, remove toxins and other heavy metals, improve circulation and blood flow, soothe skin conditions like eczema, acne, psoriasis and dermatitis, relieve joint pain, hydrate the skin and relieve bodily stress and fatigue.